Written by Anton Troianovski and Neil MacFarquhar
Russia’s foundering invasion of Ukraine has produced an extraordinary barrage of criticism from supporters of the war in recent days, directed primarily at the leadership of the Russian military. The outpouring of discontent is creating a new challenge to President Vladimir Putin, who, after cracking down on Russia’s liberal opposition, now faces growing dissent in his own camp.
The latest salvo came Thursday when a Russian-installed official in an occupied region of Ukraine belittled the Kremlin’s defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, a close associate of Putin. The official, Kirill Stremousov, said Shoigu should consider killing himself because of his army’s failures in Ukraine.
“Many people are saying that as an officer, the defense minister could simply shoot himself for being the one who let things get to this state,” said Stremousov, Russia’s “deputy governor” of the Kherson region of southern Ukraine.
It was a strikingly blunt and public rebuke, and one that built on growing frustration with the war effort. Last month, it was largely pro-Russian bloggers who were voicing anger over the failings that led to the Russian army’s being routed in northeastern Ukraine. But after Russian troops were forced to retreat in two other sections of the front line in the past week, prominent officials have increasingly joined the chorus.
Andrei Kartapolov, the head of the defense committee in Russia’s lower house of parliament, excoriated the Defense Ministry for covering up the bad news from the front. Another lawmaker said that members of parliament had written to Russia’s prosecutor general asking for an investigation into the military’s supply problems.
“They need to stop lying,” Kartapolov, who served as a senior military commander before becoming a lawmaker, said Wednesday. “Our people aren’t stupid, far from it, and they see that they are not being taken seriously. It’s not being considered necessary to tell them even part of the truth, let alone all of it.”
Shoigu, who has vacationed with Putin in Siberia, has yet to respond to the criticism, and Putin did not comment on it Thursday. Some of the faultfinding was directed at Gen. Vasily Gerasimov, the head of the armed forces, in addition to Shoigu.
There were indications that the criticism was part of infighting in the Russian ruling elite that was spilling into the open. It comes on the heels of a tirade against the military leadership published over the weekend by Ramzan Kadyrov, the strongman ruler of the southern Russian republic of Chechnya and an ally of Putin.
Kadyrov’s broadside appeared to open the floodgates — especially after the Kremlin did nothing public to punish him for his breach of wartime discipline. While none of the prominent pro-war critics of the military have attacked Putin personally, the Kremlin could still lose control of the situation if Russian battlefield losses continue, said Tatiana Stanovaya, a Russian political analyst.
“We’re seeing for the first time a personified attack of one against the other within the regime,” said Stanovaya, the founder of R.Politik, a political analysis firm. “This is a rather dangerous situation for Putin because no one is in control of it.”
One common thread in the criticism has been that Russia’s military, despite the country’s enormous defense budget, turned out to be unprepared for a real war. Many Russian hawks have been calling on the military for months to escalate its offensive but are frustrated by its poor execution.
“So what’s the genius idea of the General Staff?” Vladimir Solovyov, a prominent state television host, said on his online talk show Thursday. “Just explain it to me, dear people who have received all the necessary budget resources for so many years.”
Over Putin’s 22-year rule, the Kremlin has generally allowed some level of criticism of the government, seeing it as a way for society to let out steam. But after launching his invasion Feb. 24, Putin has gone to enormous lengths to silence domestic dissent, forcing journalists and activists into exile and shutting down many of the independent media outlets that remained inside Russia.
What he did not appear to have bargained for is that the war’s loudest supporters would themselves turn into critics of the government. On Telegram — a social network and messaging app widely used by Kremlin critics and supporters alike — war bloggers and public officials have gone from cheerleading Russia’s advances to grumbling ever more loudly about the military’s failings.
Beyond the military’s retreats on the battlefield, pro-war bloggers have been fuming over the failings of the draft announced by Putin on Sept. 21. The move was supposed to be a way for Putin to escalate the war quickly; instead it turned into a demonstration of the Russian military’s inability to house and train an influx of new soldiers.
The chaos surrounding the mobilization reached the point that even some of the loudest Kremlin cheerleaders on state TV aired examples of the system running amok.
Margarita Simonyan, the head of the RT television network, and Solovyov tried to outdo each other in pointing out how some of the men who were drafted were in their 50s and 60s, even though the officially announced cutoff age was 35. Others highlighted how a man blind in one eye was drafted.
The military commissar in charge in the region of Novosibirsk, Russia, where multiple errors occurred, should be shipped off to the front for such lapses, Solovyov said. In numerous publicized cases, the summonses were withdrawn.
Putin himself admitted last week that there had been problems with the mobilization, noting that some people called up should not have been, while others with needed skills were turned away.
The questions around mobilization are part of a larger, unusually public debate about how Russia’s military command is executing the war, and how it is possible that Russia could be losing. While the most common excuse is that Russia is fighting the entire NATO alliance, the questions are hitting closer to home.
“There are real questions, you are seeing questions on the news,” said William Alberque, the Berlin-based director of the arms control program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “‘Who is leading us? What is going on? Who are these donkeys? We have traitors among us; we need to shoot them.’ That is some of the worm-eating-its-own-tail stuff that should be sending alarm bells up the chain.”
It will be a challenge for Putin to blame the problems on any one person, analysts said, because the president took the lead role in selling the war and kept the generals and others in leadership very much in the background.
“What is he going to do, sacrifice Shoigu or Gerasimov?” Alberque said. “Saying that his commissars are wrong only works so far in a campaign that has been owned so personally by Putin. You have not seen Gerasimov and Shoigu every day in charge of this.”
Some analysts, however, cautioned against overstating Russia’s struggles and anticipating a collapse of the war effort. The mobilization is just getting started, they noted, and if deploying tens of thousands of new troops at the front, even if they are inexperienced, manages to stem the Ukrainian advances or allows Moscow to go on the offensive again, it is possible that the criticism will ebb.
“We have not seen the end of this, and it is only two weeks after the mobilization,” said Johan Norberg, a Russia analyst at the Swedish Defense Research Agency.
Generally, however, analysts are surprised at the public level of criticism of the war and how much of it is being lobbed at senior figures.
“There is more blame being tossed around more angrily at higher levels than I would have expected at this stage in the war,” Alberque said.